Formed in a rehearsal room at the Bristol Old Vic in 2011, The Wardrobe Ensemble are, in their own words, ‘a group of theatre artists working together to make new plays that dissect the twenty-first century experience’. In the near-decade since their founding, they’ve earned success and critical acclaim – performing around the UK, winning awards and staging one of their plays in London’s West End.
Their latest show, The Last of the Pelican Daughters, premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019, and was due to embark on a UK-wide tour before it was sadly shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, in an extract from the introduction to the published playscript shared to mark the play’s publication, the play’s co-directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones reflect on its development, what that showed them about the evolution of the company, and how the current crisis in UK theatre has made them reflect on their own choices.
When we met with Judith Dimant of Complicité (and now Wayward Productions) in 2016, she said that we reminded her of a young Complicité (which is always exactly what an emerging theatre company wants to hear). As much as this was to do with theatrical style, it was perhaps more to do with the non-hierarchical form of our company, and the intensity of the relationships between company members. We’re a tight-knit group with our own traditions, secrets and mythologies, crafted over the decade we’ve spent working together. In that meeting, she asked us if there was a show that we wanted to make, but were too terrified and felt too inexperienced to do so.
We’d been speaking about making The Wardrobe Ensemble’s version of a ‘family drama’ for some years. As much as we loved watching stories about families, from Greek tragedy to The Simpsons, it felt like so much of what we associated with ‘family drama’ was formally stuck within a kind of naturalism that didn’t reflect our tastes or theatrical sensibilities. On top of this, the most famous works of family drama explored the particular quirks and traumas of a singular playwright. Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory’ play The Glass Menagerie, for example, reads like a therapy session for the writer. Would it be possible for a group rather than a single writer, or more importantly our group, with our particular quirks and differences of experience to embark on such a therapy/creation experience? How would we excavate and interrogate our collective familial demons? Is there anything to be revealed about our time and generation? Importantly in those early conversations, we were sure that our show would look nothing like a family drama that you’ve seen before. It would mess with the conventions of the genre and reflect our own world-view and style. Judith liked this idea the best.
Somewhat ironically, but perhaps tellingly, what emerged is the most naturalistic play that we’ve ever made, one that adheres to many narrative and stylistic conventions of ‘traditional’ or ‘straight’ plays of the past. It’s got plenty more silence, subtext and emotional performance than any of our other work. Similarly, the themes and characters look and sound like plays of the past: it begins with a death, it’s about a house, someone is having a baby. There’s more than a hint of The Cherry Orchard’s Varya in Storm, or the ghost of King Hamlet in Rosemary Pelican. And it’s important to say that all of this convention felt terrifying for us. Making a ‘proper’ play felt extremely difficult. Naturalism felt unnatural.
So much of devising lies in an ability to give up certain aspects of control and let a show emerge. The work that comes out of us collectively is not driven by a singular voice, but emerges through the collective character of the company. And so, it’s weird that we made this. This isn’t the show that any one of us wanted to make. But despite our best efforts, it’s the show that the company needed to make.
We understood that to deconstruct a family drama we needed to make one. But by the time we built one that functioned – designed the family, found their stories and struggles, built the pink house, etc. – deconstructing them all felt like a disingenuous act. Though we often felt embarrassed by their behaviour and the interpersonal issues that were emerging in the play, we did care about the Pelicans. We had to, because to varying degrees, their stories are our stories. And that isn’t to say that we have undying love and affection for these characters. Ask any member of the company about how much irony is in the play, and it will differ. Some will say ‘This is my family’, some will say ‘I fucking hate these privileged arseholes’, and some will acknowledge what is maybe closest to the truth: ‘This is a version of The Wardrobe Ensemble.’
We tried to make the show flashier, cooler and more energetic. We tried to make the characters address their political context more directly, as we might have done in previous work. But these attempts felt dishonest. Perhaps because we were all in a process of grappling with an ugly truth, that we were starting to care about so-called ‘grown-up things’. Our work used to explore the world in hypothetical or nostalgic terms, but what do we actually worry about now? What keeps us up at night are often the same questions that are affecting the Pelican children: What do I want my life to look like? What do I need to get there? How long can I exist in this chaotic ensemble? Do I always have to share? What kind of an adult do I want to be?
In March this year (2020), we remounted this show in Northampton ready for our UK tour. After a few rewrites and additions, and a partial re-cast (the wonderful Sally Cheng, Laurie Jamieson and Bea Scirocchi joined the team), the show was ready to hit the road. We were struck by how much more comfortable we had become with The Last of the Pelican Daughters. We were able to lean into the naturalism, pace and emotion of it with far more confidence. It seemed we had finally accepted the strange thing we had collectively given birth to. Had we become what we sought to reject? Had we actually become adults? And then, of course, COVID-19. We were at the Nuffield in Southampton (NST) when it was announced the government strongly advised the public not to go to theatres any more. The tour was cancelled and all the professional stability that we had tried so hard to build over the past ten years had disappeared overnight. We dismantled the set and packed it away. NST has since gone into administration. And so, as we write this (in early July), we find ourselves reflecting on the show in vastly different ways.
If this play is our first reckoning with the proper realities of being grown-ups, there are two diametrically opposing messages that the show seems to reflect back at us.
Firstly, that our mission of collective theatre-making and non-hierarchical structures was naive and hypocritical. Instead, we should have cared about real ‘adult things’. The Pelican children lose their house and their inheritance at the end of the play, because at some level, they just weren’t paying attention. From one perspective, we as a company have buried our heads in the sand for the last ten years. We’ve been making financially unsustainable choices since day one. So perhaps it’s time to kill the dream and start making responsible choices. Maybe the Tories are right. Maybe we should wake up to the reality that we live in a capitalist society before we lose everything we hold dear.
But secondly, that dramatic changes to our reality can come out of nowhere, whether you’ve behaved like an ‘adult’ or not. Susie Stephens of Stephen Stephens and Sons Solicitors will always interrupt breakfast. And so, now more than ever, it feels vital that we hold onto the families that we find ourselves in. The idealism of Rosemary Pelican and indeed The Wardrobe Ensemble is unrealistic, but at the moment we’re not sure what isn’t. As the coronavirus leaves our world’s safety, economy and future on shaky ground, we need communities, rituals, traditions, secrets and mythologies to hold onto more than ever. And if we really are the grown-ups now, it’s our responsibility to define the culture of the families in which we exist. It’s up to us to choose what to bring forward into the future and what to abandon. It’s our responsibility to start building a house in which we actually want to live.
We’re very proud to publish The Last of the Pelican Daughters, which is out now in paperback and ebook. In addition to the full script of the play, the published edition includes an extensive oral history of The Wardrobe Ensemble by its members, and a workshop plan for two people of different generations to communicate and collaborate in person or online.
As one the dozens of NHB-published shows affected by the COVID-19 shutdown, we’re currently offering 30% off The Last of the Pelican Daughters in our Still on the Page celebration – see more here.
Check out more of The Wardrobe Ensemble’s NHB-published work here.